Palestinian refugees in Syria are facing exceptional, stressful conditions, as a result of the revolution and the brutal reaction of the ruling regime, as well as the attempt of several actors to drag the Palestinians into the conflict.
The devastation has not spared Palestinian refugee camps; about half of the Palestinian refugee population (around a quarter of a million people) was displaced, and more than 50 thousand had to seek refuge outside of Syria.
The continuation of the conflict in Syria, as well as further weakening, destruction, and sectarian-ethnic fragmentation, will exacerbate the tremendous suffering of the Syrian people – who have always embraced the Palestinian issue.
Not only that, but it will also weaken Syria’s pivotal role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and bring more suffering to the refugees, who may also face threats like forcible displacement and dismantlement of refugee camps, and lose some of their legal rights.
Nevertheless, the emergence of a free Syria that expresses the will of its people would indeed provide the ideal opportunity for the Palestinians to cross into safer grounds.
The Palestinian public opinion can recall several major events with direct impact on the Palestinians during the Arab crises, since the early days of the Syrian conflict. On 22/3/2011, for instance, the Syrian pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan accused Palestinians residing in the Daraa refugee camp of standing behind the incidents of the previous day. Four days later, Dr. Buthayna Sha`ban, advisor to the Syrian president, repeated the same accusations against the Palestinians of al-Raml refugee camp in Latakia – of being responsible for similar incidents there.
From the start of the crisis, elements in the regime sought to implicate the Palestinian refugee camps, which, in general, took on a humanitarian role throughout one year and a half of the crisis.
Although the regime forces overran most neighborhoods in Daraa, beginning with 25/4/2011, they did not enter the refugee camp there. This is while bearing in mind that the regime troops were aware of the role played by the camp, particularly in term of medical relief, and that they had targeted all field hospitals in the city with the exception of the camp’s hospital. This continued until an armed brigade was formed in the camp in early May 2012. As a result, the camp came under heavy artillery fire, the first shelling of its kind to target Palestinians directly. Yet the most momentous shift in the reality of Syrian camps took place when 14 recruits from the Palestinian Liberation Army were abducted in early July 2012, along the Hama-Aleppo road. Two weeks later, the recruits were all executed.
With mutual accusations between the opposition and the regime over responsibility for the incident, the slaying of the Liberation Army recruits marked a disturbing turn of events within the Palestinian refugee camps, especially the Yarmouk refugee camp, where protests erupted to condemn the killing. A radically new stage thus began.
The Palestinian factions in general were keen on maintaining their neutrality vis-à-vis the events in Syria. Nevertheless, most of them did not conceal their sympathy with the Syrian people and their legitimate aspirations for freedom and democracy, while calling for blocking foreign intervention and keeping the refugee camps strictly out of the armed conflict between the two sides.
However, the extensive overlap between the Palestinians and the Syrian people, and the daily interaction with them in various aspects of life, economically, socially, and even politically, meant that the Palestinians undertook important humanitarian and relief roles to help their Syrian brethren.
Furthermore, some Palestinians began offering political and military support to the armed opposition or the regime, gradually dragging the Palestinians into the fray. Meanwhile, the conduct of the regime and its military-security crackdown invited broad sympathy from the majority of the Palestinian population in Syria and outside, with the opposition.
Meanwhile, Hamas, despite its exceptional relations with the regime prior to the crisis, opted to adopt a neutral stance. This was evident in the statement Hamas issued regarding the crisis on 2/4/2011, which may have been the first wedge between the Palestinian resistance group and the Syrian regime. Indeed, the regime had hoped Hamas would side with it, to take advantage of the respect the latter enjoys in the Syrian street.
Hamas assessment of the crisis in Syria prompted it to move its cadres outside of Syria, in preparation for transferring its political bureau out of Damascus. This has invited wide criticisms by the pro-regime media, to the extent of waging direct attacks on Hamas politburo head Khalid Mish‘al by state-owned television on 1/10/2012, following Mish‘al’s speech at the conference of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on the previous day. In the speech, Mish‘al declared his support for the revolution of the Syrian people, prompting the regime to close down and seize Hamas’s politburo offices in Damascus.
In the meantime, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP–GC) realigned itself to become even closer to the regime. The group’s leader Ahmad Jibril resumed the old custom of sitting to the right of President Assad during meetings with Palestinian factions.
In August 2012, the PFLP–GC received backing to form a security formation dubbed the “Popular Committees,” which deployed heavily in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. The Popular Committees clashed with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) near the refugee camp for more than four months, and hundreds of Palestinian casualties fell, including 240 in Yarmouk alone.
This situation continued until groups from the FSA entered Yarmouk, after the Popular Committees were routed, when scores of them defected in the aftermath of the airstrikes by the regime on the ‘Abdul Qadir al-Husseini Mosque on 16/12/2012 – where more than 15 people were killed.
On the other hand, the attitudes of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) vacillated between neutrality and accusations against the regime of being responsible for what had happened to Palestinians. A month after Syria decided to recognize the state of Palestine, PLO Secretary Yasir ‘Abd Rabbo told Reuters that the regime’s bombing of al-Raml refugee camp near Latakia, which took place on 17/8/2011, was a “crime against humanity.”
On 11/2/2013, a delegation from the PLO, headed by Zakaria al-Agha, visited Damascus, reflecting a desire by the PLO leadership to play a more effective role with respect to Palestinians residing in Syria. However, the PLO delegation was cordial to the regime, and discussed maintaining the neutrality of Palestinian refugee camps, without meeting with anyone from the opposition, which practically controls Yarmouk.
In addition, PLO Executive Committee Member ‘Abdul Rahim Mallouh told Al-Quds TV, while the delegation was present in Damascus that the FSA bears responsibility for what is happening in the Yarmouk camp.
The Future of Palestinian Refugees in Syria: Possible Scenarios
Since the start of the crisis in March 2011, and until mid-July 2012, the number of Palestinian casualties in all parts of Syria did not exceed 83. The total confirmed number of casualties in the seven months that followed was 1,030.
With the numbers of displaced Palestinians soaring to more than half of the refugee population numbering up to 500 thousand, and with more than 50 thousand of them forced to leave Syria, the reality of Palestinians in Syria has become worrisome. The siege imposed on some camps has been tightened, with both sides in the conflict committing violations against the refugee population.
While some reports maintain that the majority of killings and abuses against the Palestinians were caused by the regime forces and its allies, other reports point out that groups affiliated with the FSA have also committed abuses under various pretexts.
Syrian laws give the Palestinians the same rights as Syrians, with the exception of political rights linked to nationality, voting, and political representation. However, the Syrian regime has taken a step backwards with respect to the legal rights of the Palestinians, and recently excluded them from recruitment for the Ministry of Education and certain scholarships. This gives some disturbing signs over the regime’s possible future conduct towards the Palestinians.
In the event the regime survives and stability is restored, particularly under an international political settlement that pulls powerful cards from the hands of the regime – hitherto the basis of its foreign policy and involvement in the Palestinian question – the future of the Palestinians will remain as equally uncertain as it would be in case the regime collapses. For one thing, the country may descend into sectarian warfare or armed chaos, without the emergence of a new stable political regime.
Indeed, there is no guarantee that the Palestinians will be dealt with in accordance with Syrian laws during an unstable transitional period, or if the current regime endures in a totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian configuration.
For their part, the opposition factions have been deeply preoccupied with the affairs of political change and revolution, and issued but a few statements in the past two years concerning the Palestinians in Syria and the Palestinian question in general, expressing the usual Syrian sympathy and support for the Palestinians.
Perhaps the document titled Covenant of Loyalty for Palestinians in Syrian Territory issued on 16/3/2013, by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, marked an important step forward in providing a detailed vision by one of the most prominent factions of the Syrian opposition towards Palestinians in Syria and the Palestinian issue. The document emphasized that the issue of Palestine remains the central cause of the nation, proclaiming that the Syrians and Palestinians are one people with a shared future, while pledging to respect and protect all the rights of Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian refugee camps are threatened by the regime, which continues to bombard them, and which may introduce changes in their structure in accordance with its military agenda, if the regime were to settle the conflict in its favor – particularly as regards the Yarmouk camp south of the capital.
On the other hand, displaced Palestinians may hesitate to return to Syria during an unstable transitional phase, especially those individuals who sought asylum in Europe, or managed to legally reside in certain countries. It also appears that the distinguished economic activity of the Palestinians in Syria, which nearly collapsed during the crisis, may not be able to recover quickly, except in the context of post-war activities, for example those linked to reconstruction efforts.
In summary, the future of Palestinian refugees in Syria cannot be guaranteed, whether politically or in what regards legal and human rights, except under a rule that establishes the state of law, and grants rights to the Palestinian refugee law as per Law No. 260 of 1956.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr.Tariq Hammoud for authoring the original text on which this Assessment was based